Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Post war books: Spotlight by Patricia Wentworth



published 1949



spotlight LHJ



[Nouveau riche Mrs Tote arrives at the houseparty

A very expensive fur coat having been shed, there appeared a wispy little woman rather like a mouse, with scant grey hair twisted up into a straggly knot behind. Do her hair any other way than she had done it ever since she grew up Mrs Tote would not. She brushed it neatly , and she put in plenty of pins. It wasn’t her fault if the fur turban that went with the coat was so heavy that it dragged the hair down. She hadn’t wanted the fur turban. She would have liked a nice neat matron’s hat in one of those light felts like she used to get when they had their business in Clapham, before Albert made all that money. The turban made her head ache, like a lot of the things that had happened since they got rich, She would have been glad to take it off like that Miss Lane had done with hers, pulling it off careless, and her hair all shining waves underneath. She liked to see a girl with a nice head of hair, and fair hair paid for dressing. Nice to be able just to pull off your hat like that and feel sure that you were all right underneath. But of course not suitable at her age, and the hairpins dropping out like they always did all the way down in the car.



Spotlight 1



observations: What a treasure trove this book was – full of items related to recent Clothes in Books preoccupations, Spotlight 2starting of course with its being a 1949 book and thus post-war – references to war knitting (in khaki) and black market adventures and free education. There are many outfits that could have been featured – the pink frilled negligee, the bad blue dinner dress and the good black one. But as soon as I saw the reference to the fur turban I knew this had to be it. Fur turban - just the sound of the words is wonderful. Fur turban. Fur turban. Sorry, maybe it’s just me
 
Other features include a character called Linnet – I did a list of these recently and the kindly @lisaTBR313 came up with this one in a tweet:
Lisa May @LisaTBR313 ·  Apr 11
@ClothesinBooks I found another Linnet for your list, Linnet Oakley in Patricia Wentworth's Spotlight, aka The Wicked Uncle.
Linnet - an older woman, not the heroine -  is an interesting character. In the midst of all the usual Wentworth trappings and the annoying Miss Silver, there is a really heart-wrenching piece of writing, as Linnet thinks about some bad times in her past:
For years she had never let herself think about that time… but the dreadful sordid memories came crowding into her mind. It was like having a lot of dirty tramps in her nice clean house. They went everywhere, and did just what they liked. They had kept her awake in the night, and when she slept they had walked in and out of her dreams.
I thought that was an impressively real description of bad thoughts and memories.

Also above there is ‘paid for dressing’ – used in another Wentworth book featured recently, and provoking an inconclusive look at what exactly the phrase means.

The felt hat Mrs Tote really wanted is, I’m betting, something like the one the blog gave Margery Sharp’s heroine Julia (from the other direction, in a manner of speaking) in The Nutmeg Tree – ‘Matron’s Model’:
 



I’m a bit worried about all the luminous paint knocking round in this book – let’s hope it wasn’t the highly poisonous stuff from not many years before.

There is, and I think this must surely be unique in all crime fiction, a theory that a suspect who seemed to have been upstairs when the victim died, might have slid down the bannisters in order to get to the spot on time. This isn’t pursued much, but it is rather a startling image. [ADDED LATER: But see comment from Noah Stewart below - apparently there does exist a book where sliding down the bannisters is key...]

There seems to be a mistake in the timings of the busy day when Dorinda nearly gets arrested for shop-lifting, buys the luminous paint, and manages to find the good black dinner dress – the shop incident clearly must have happened before midday, but later we hear reports of its being planned, and ‘between 12 and 1’ is repeated several times. But by then she is having lunch, so that we can be charmed with this sentence:
Gratitude made Dorinda’s eyes look exactly like peat-water with the sun on it.
There is a reference to someone ‘not being a brother’ which is unexpectedly reminiscent of Emma (in Jane Austen’s book) having a conversation with Mr Knightley. Just in case you wondered who Dorinda was going to end up with.

And I am going, yet again, to recommend this fascinating article on Patricia Wentworth and Miss Silver, by blogfriend Noah Stewart.

Finding a picture of a fur turban was disappointingly difficult. One of those above is actually described as a fur turban (you can just see the words) but doesn’t look much like one to me.

Top picture is from the Ladies Home Journal of 1948.

Fur turban. Mmm.
















29 comments:

  1. I just can't see myself really enjoying these books apart from all the incidental details you so carefully lay out here Moira as otherwise they all sound exactly the same! Which is to say, can;t see myself picking up the book, but really enjoyed your post on it :)

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    1. I can see exactly what you mean Sergio. I like to think I have a category of books which is 'I read this one so you don't have to' - and I think that might be where this one falls.

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  2. Oh, I do like that observation about bad memories, Moira. It's quite accurate and what a great mental picture. And of course it's poignant. This is a Wentworth that I admit I've not read, and it's the first I've heard of where a suspect is believed to slide down a banister - Interesting!! Well, inventive, anyway. I can certainly see why the detail here would be right up your street, Moira, fur turban and all. Fur turban...

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    1. I think you feel it too, Margot, don't you: fur turban. Perhaps as a linguistic expert you can think of a theory why those almost rhyming (but not quite? depending on accent?) first syllables make the words so appealing....

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    2. There is another such novel, where a suspect slides down a bannister to do the deed, but -- it would give away the ending if I told you. I'll merely say it's from 1934 and it's a first novel.

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    3. NO!! Noah I am so impressed, it just shows that you must never assume anything is ridiculous or impossible. I'll try not to work out which book it is, and hope to be surprised by it one day. I'm going to put a note above....

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    4. I know the book Noah is referring to!! In fact, when I saw the banister reference, I thought of it too - and then I knew for certain we had the same book in mind when I saw his clue and double-checked. You'll come to it eventually.

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    5. This is hilarious, I'm laughing so much at this bizarre bit of history from you both. Now I'm wondering when I'm going to find out which book it is...

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  3. Hmm, love the enthusiasm, which unsurprisingly isn't infectious! Boy, am I glad I've had my jabs!

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    1. See comment to Sergio above - same applies to you....

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  4. Thanks so much, as before, for the link -- it's nice to have the referrals! When I saw you were taking on Spotlight, I immediately thought of the cairngorm brooch that goes out the car window, its replacement pin from her long-suffering cousin, and the contrast with Miss Silver's bog-oak pearl. But it's clothes you look at, not jewelry ... ah well.

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    1. I've just been reading yet another Miss Silver book, and jewellery will be mentioned in the blogpost!

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    2. ...though I haven't yet found a picture of a suitable bog-oak brooch.

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  5. I'm glad I'm not the only person who seizes on these little things in books! I wouldn't have been able to avoid fur turban either. It manages to sound very glamorous whilst being in terribly bad taste. Talking of hats,I've come across several references to boudoir caps/bonnets - what do you know about them?

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    1. Christine I just had to look up boudoir caps/bonnets - how intriguing, I hadn't come across them before. I remember in Georgette Heyer there is much discussion of a lady starting to wear 'caps' - and that this is a sign of accepting older age. That might have been a boudoir cap?

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    2. It could be. Never read Georgette Heyer ('hangs her head in shame') but I'd like to find this reference. Patricia Brent, Spinster has one, and there's a mention in Margery Sharp somewhere. I think they were worn first thing in the morning when women woke up, before they'd done their hair, and they were quite ornate.

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    3. I think in Heyer's Black Sheep the heroine Abigail (late 20s, unmarried) expresses her intention of 'going into caps' but her young niece says oh no she mustn't, she is too young. But it sounds as though this may not be quite the same thing as a boudoir cap from all this research!

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  6. Boudoir caps hid your iron hair curlers from your husband, in the days when you slept in curlers - WWI onwards. (Wonder what the husbands thought?) Caps as worn by older ladies were a whole other ball game. See Cranford and Wives and Daughters. W&D reveals that an older lady wore a black skullcap onto which she pinned a "false front" and side curls. The white lace cap hid the joins.

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    1. Thanks Lucy, very informative. The black cap sounds awful - which character was it? (W&D one of my most favourite books, though don't remember this aspect.)

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  7. I have this book, as Wicked Uncle. I will have to try it sometime soon. I would like to read a Wentworth book this year, after reading so many opinions about the quality of them. (I have read many of them before, and all I remember is liking them and that they were repetitive.)

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    1. Yes they are repetitive, Tracy, but as Noah argues, that is part of the attraction. This might be quite a good one to start on, as you have it - you don't feel you need to start at the beginning....?

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    2. No, no need to start as the beginning, although I might like to sample at least one from each decade or something like that. I did like that Noah read them again in publication order, even getting e-books if he did not have them. That is what I did with Rex Stout's mysteries at one point, although it was before the internet so I was tracking down copies at books stores. I used the biography of Rex Stout and even read the novellas in order as printed in magazines, not in book pub order. I am a committed Stout fan.

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    3. At the moment I am re-reading the Harry Potter books, which really do need to be read in order...

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    4. Rereading Harry Potter? And I am having a hard time getting started on Book 7. I do want to read it this year. Are you going to review them all?

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    5. No - I think maybe a token one or two. My family went on the Harry Potter Studio Tour north of London recently, and it inspired me to read them again...

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  8. It's wasn't a very good one for me, though I can see it ranks for sheer period detail. I have just finished re-reading her The Gazebo - again, some nice clothing moments but very dubious plot (clothes: a woman dressed far too boldly for the London suburbs; and another who has let herself go, with stray hairs on her coat collar. *shocking stuff*).

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    1. I thought the plot was rather ludicrous, but I do intend to read more by her: I think I just like the details. I will note down the gazebo. (It's probably rather a posh structure? In the UK now it means a cheap temporary plastic tent associated with low-rent outdoor socializing.)

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  9. I think the phrase 'paid for dressing' really means that it was worthwhile styling that type of hair as it repaid the effort spent on it by flattering the wearer.

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    1. Thanks Carol, it's one of those phrases that I feel I know but can't parse word for word.

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